SITGES 2008: guest-report from the 41th International Film Festival of Catalonia – by Stefan Ivancic

A month ago, when the programme was unveiled, I had the impression that the 41st IFFC-S (2nd-12th October 2008) was going to be greatly satisfying. No special reason for this impression – just a hunch. Supernatural, perhaps. Maybe it was because I barely recognised many titles among the new films – which therefore took on a decidedly tantalising aspect.
   And maybe it was because Sitges, long established as one of the world's greatest  'fantasy' film-festivals, was celebrating the 40th anniversaries of genre classics including Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Romero's Night of the Living Dead by screening them in the impressive  'Auditori' cinema – with its 1,380 seats, huge screen, and superb sound-system.
   Now that the festival is over, I'm generally satisfied with the films I watched during my all-too-brief sojourn in Sitges. But I'm aware that the general reaction from those who stayed longer hasn't been quite so positive. And not all of the dozen movies I caught were good ones: on one particularly ill-starred day I watched, consecutively, Chuck Patton's abject videogame-prequel Dead Space, Olly Blackburn's dire slaughter-orgy Donkey Punch, and Veit Helmer's boring, all-too-accurately named Jeunet/Kusturica mashup Absurdistan.
   Best to forget such negativity, however, and accentuate the positive. I therefore present my top five films of Sitges 2008:

     [9/10] : Sukai kurora : OSHII Mamoru : Japan 2008 : 122m
   A comic-strip published in the festival's daily paper "in order to capture better the essence of Oshii's work" pictured three identical images where a single character is shown thinking "deep thoughts". But the minimalism of The Sky Crawlers actually marks a departure from the profundity-quests which characterise his Ghost in the Shell period. Since finishing Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Mamoru Oshii has been definitely expanding his creativity to unexpected levels – he now seems chiefly concerned with (re)constructing a comprehensive human history via stories located somewhere in contemporary times. If his previous Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters was a spoken essay on food, The Sky Crawlers is a more visual essay that, with just a few elements, creates a complex image of war.
   What – uhh… what is it good for? What is "war" anyway? Is it essentially a concept that eludes total description or understanding? What is modern-day warfare and how does it work? Is there a border between peace and war today? It's been ages since I've seen such a minimalistic yet efficient film that not only asks all of these questions, but also tries to provide some answers.
   During the film we witness (in a timeless setting) a conflict that takes place entirely in the air. Warplanes are here the ultimate destruction machinery – piloted by the "Kildrens," children who never age, but can physically die. The sky where the battles are held is presented as the great symbol of a distant and ethereal space – a space where where we are supposed to assume contemporary wars take place.
   The narrative structure of the film shouldn't be ignored – the couple of actions that shape Oshii's film flow in an infinite loop, even when the movie has ended (after the ending credits, and in one's mind as well). This roundelay structure – which includes reincarnation – is reminiscent of the patterns wars take on through history, especially through 20th and 21st centuries. And, last but not least: war is broadcasted, yet there is no big insistence in representing this as a crucial fact – it is wisely introduced in the film as an act of routine, on the level of a daily sports-network broadcast.


     [8/10] : Mabrouk EL MECHRI : Belgium/France/Luxembourg 2008 : 102m
This film "about the life of Jean-Claude Van Damme" was definitely my most eagerly-anticipated film of 2008, ever since I read the good reviews which followed the premiere at Cannes (in the Market) and saw the impressive teaser ( However, the scene we see in the teaser is not actually included in JCVD's final cut – a shame, considering this sequence is actually even better than the whole film itself. It should at least be shown as a prologue before each screening of JCVD – in the same way as Wes Anderson's short Hotel Chevalier was paired with his feature The Darjeeling Limited.
   If the teaser made us believe JCVD might be a documentary, the movie quickly proves otherwise. The action of the film is completely fictitious, but the words of Van Damme during this performance (the whole film is like a big theatre-play, including the location where it takes place) are biographical. The character's (fictional) assault on a post-office is motivated by his depression – a real-life depression which Van Damme suffered, and which was caused by divorce (and issues of child-custody), drugs, and financial woes.
   Thus, JCVD is the on-screen redemption of Jean-Claude Van Damme: a long plan-séquence shows the actor/character making a confession to the camera, with his eyes (tearful, at one juncture) fixed on the audience. The realism of this scene makes it impossible to distinguish whether he's really crying or he's acting, but it leaves no room for doubt: Jean-Claude Van Damme is, finally and against all odds, revealed an thespian of high calibre.

     [7/10] : Fabrice DU WELZ : Belgium 2008 : 100m
   Roughly since Alexandre Aja's High Tension (2003), Francophone horror-cinema has been establishing itself as a dominant element within this particular genre. Sitges has been witnessing this for several years: from du Welz's Calvaire (2004) to Ils (2006), and then 2007's Inside and Frontier(s). This year Aja's Mirrors opened Sitges, and two more French-speaking horror films were in the competition: the controversially brutal Martyrs (Canadian/French), and du Welz's trip to south-eastern Asia in Vinyan.
   The plot concerns a married couple who lost their son in Thailand during the (real-life) tsunami of Christmas 2004; six months later, they think they spot him in video-footage, and so head out to the area to look for him. As this starting-point perhaps hints, Vinyan is less of a "pure" example of the horror genre than the recent Francophone variants. It is not packed with killings or gore scenes; the emphasis is not so much on the physical but on the psychological.
   Vinyan is an "atmosphere" film, where the environment (above all, the jungle-like locations and the sound work) have a major influence on the characters' behaviour. In this regard, it's reminiscent of Werner Herzog's films, and especially Aguirre, Wrath of God. Du Welz, of course, is no Herzog – and neither can any of the performers be realistically compared with Klaus Kinski.
   Nevertheless, the mystical aura created by the natural elements (idyllic scenery, almost deserted, often enveloped with a dense fog) and deepened by electronic sounds and music, is strong enough to fully convince us that the environment is slowly causing Janet (Emmanuelle Béart), the mother, to lose her grip on reality. And this results in a rift developing between Janet and her husband as they start to face the reality of their situation. It's a road-movie of madness, if you will, and well worth the journey – for the audience, if not for the characters themselves.

[7/10] : Mark PERANSON : Spain/Canada 2008 : 105m
   Showing in Sitges as part of a focus on current Catalan cinema, Birdsong is a new film about the Three Wise Men by experimental writer/director Albert Serra (his follow-up to his prize-winning debut Honor de Cavalleria). Among its performers is the Canadian journalist and festival-programmer Mark Peranson – editor of Toronto-based magazine CinemaScope – who plays the role of Joseph, and who spent his time on set shooting footage for what has become Waiting For Sancho, an unorthodox "making-of" to accompany Serra's enigmatic feature.
   In line with the radical spirit of Serra's film, Peranson's enterprise departs from the usual "rules" associated with this kind of documentary. He rejects crew-interviews and instead shows us the routines which went on during the filming, observing Serra at work. We discover that these people really "live" in the film's imaginary world – there is little distinction between what is on camera and what is not. There are countless examples of this: since he played Sancho in Honor de Cavalleria, everyone calls actor Lluí­s Serrat (who plays one of the Three Kings) Sanchini. And there are almost no calls of "cut" on a Serra set – cameras run all the time, even while they are being moved or while instructions are given to the non-professional actors. It's a fascinating glimpse into a decidedly idiosyncratic version of the creative process.

[7/10] : Gake no ue no Ponyo : MIYAZAKI Hayao : Japan 2008 : 100m
   As with pretty much all of Miyazaki's films, Ponyo is a tale of love and friendship: this time between a five-year-old kid and a sea-princess who wants to become human. Starting with this premise, a whole ocean of fantasy emerges from the real world. The story Ponyo is mainly influenced by great universal cultural references such as Greek mythology (specifically sea-gods) or The Little Mermaid, but it also includes traditional elements of Japanese culture, such as tsunamis.
   Ponyo is Miyazaki's return to old-fashioned animation, the style that's fondly remembered by those of us born in the eighties via our childhood cartoons – in fact, it was made entirely by hand, pencil-drawn. Therefore the drawing looks less defined, more blurry, and somehow much plainer than, for example, Miyazaki's last two films (2001's Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle from 2004), although it is still full of details – indeed, some observers have already called it an "impressionist" animation style.
   However, this more childish look of both aesthetics and imagination (fantasy here is much more "real" this time) also brings the film closer to the viewer, and it returns the joyful feelings experienced with previous Miyazaki films such as My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Porco Rosso (1992) or Princess Mononoke (1997), and which didn't show up in the over complex and disperse Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Finally, enjoy Ponyo's addictive main theme:

Stefan Ivančić
(Special thanks to Mateja Vidaković)

Other films seen in Sitges 2008:
ENCARNAí‡Aí• DO DEMí”NIO : [7/10] : José Mojica Marins : Br 08 : 95m
EDEN LAKE : [6/10] : James Watkins : UK 2008 : 91m
OTTO; OR UP WITH DEAD PEOPLE : [6/10] : Bruce La Bruce : Ger/Can 08 : 95m
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD : [4/10] : Kim Jee-won : S. Kor 08 : 130m
TOKYO! : Gondry [2/10], Carax [8/10], Bong [5/10] : Fr/Jap/S. Kor/Ger 08 : 110m
DONKEY PUNCH : [2/10] : Olly Blackburn : UK 08 : 100m
DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL : [1/10] : Chuck Patton : USA 08 : 73m
 : [1/10] : Javi Alonso, Raúl López : Spa 08 : 14m
Tras los visillos : [5/10] : Gregorio Muro, Raúl López : Spa 08 : 16m
Kingz : [1/10] : Benni Diez, Marinko Spahic : Ger 07 : 20m